When I heard James Gandolfini died, I immediately began calling, texting and emailing my friends. You probably did the same. I sought out everyone I could think of who’s ever loved Gandolfini, so we could mourn together, comfort each other, share our pain.
Of course, the truth is that none of us loved James Gandolfini because none of us had ever even met the man. James Gandolfini could have been a capital-A asshole who suffocated puppies for all we knew.* Honestly, it was Tony Soprano we loved. It was Tony we knew so well, and Tony we’ve missed all these years already. The more my friends and I reminisced about Tony, the more I appreciated what an extraordinary character Tony was — and, looking back now, the more I realize how much I’d learned about midlife and my own looming crises from watching his torment.
Here are three things Tony taught me.
1) Empty nest syndrome can lay you out – literally.
If it looks like duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Unless it’s a symbolic representation of your impending loss of identity. Tony delighted in the birds and their babies that bobbed in his pool all summer. But when the ducks flew the coop come fall, the big man blacked out — a panic attack that prompted Tony to seek a shrink. In their first session, Dr. Melfi helped him make the connection between the fowl and his fears. “I was sad to see them go,” Tony confided. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my family.”
2) Hell hath no fury like a sister scorned.
There was only one "Sopranos" character with balls as big as Tony’s. It wasn’t Junior or Ralphie or even Phil Leotardo. It was Janice. It was Janice who stole Svetlana’s prosthetic leg and held it for ransom, and it was Janice who whacked her own fiancé Richie Aprile by shooting him in the chest over a plate of rigatoni. Janice had an assiduously honed ability to push her little brother’s buttons — buttons only a big sister would know how to find — and she jabbed those buttons fearlessly. Sure, some sibling rivalries dissipate as we mature, but others fester until the day we die. Who could forget the Monopoly game melee that erupted after Janice spilled the family secret that their father once shot their mother through her beehive because she caught him with his goomar?
3) Denial may be a great Band-Aid for a troubled relationship, but eventually, you have to rip it off.
During their decades-long marriage, Carmela coped by turning a blind eye toward any and all of Tony’s escapades — from his ruthless crimes to his wandering eye. But from time to time, when pushed past her breaking point, Carmela let her pent-up shit hit the proverbial fan. Like the time Irina called Carmela to narc on Tony for having sex with her cousin Svetlana: “So you’ve got a one-legged one now, huh? You’ve had quite a time on my watch … the pre-school assistant, the weight lifter….” Carm screamed. She left out the Bada Bing! strippers, the stewardess, the escort and Julianna Margulies. Still, letting that anger erupt is likely what allowed their relationship to endure.
*By the way, James Gandolfini apparently was NOT a capital-A asshole — by all accounts, he was as great of a human being as he was an actor. And he deeply loved his rescue dog, Duke.